This blog post is co-authored by Jenny Wallace and Rebecca Matteson. Jenny and Rebecca have both taught English for Academic Purposes and have extensive experience supporting learners to develop writing skills in higher education.
Back in April, many of us attended Maha Bali’s Open Education Week workshop Openness: from pedagogy to practice, and enjoyed her enthusiastic, interactive style. She also writes an engaging education blog called Reflecting Allowed, full of examples of her writing style: generosity in sharing her personal experiences, use of natural imagery and a discursive tone. Maha’s voice speaks loud and clear through her written words.
Voice in writing is a personal expression of style and identity, and it develops over time. It can include word choices and grammatical style, and reflect culture, experience and beliefs, helping a writer connect with and make an impact on their reader.
Voice can be challenging to express in the strict convention of academic writing, and this challenge could be even greater for learners. However, learners with a developed voice can:
- articulate their opinions more clearly
- separate their own opinions from those of other writers
- synthesise source evidence strategically to support their arguments
- incorporate ideas from generative Artificial Intelligence (GenAI) more judiciously
So what are some ways we can help learners raise their voices?
Let learners speak
Getting learners to write means asking them to put some of themselves out there in a permanent way. We can relieve some of this pressure by allowing time for learners to talk through a concept before asking them to write about it. Encouraging students to speak about topics before writing also puts the emphasis on ideas rather than grammar or sentence formation, which are often barriers to self-expression, especially for students whose first language is not English.
Let learners talk it out in various ways and in a language they prefer. Give time for students to discuss in pairs, groups, or even talk to themselves about a topic out loud or in their head.
Write little and often
Making regular opportunities for short bursts of writing takes the pressure off penning a long, formal paragraph and helps learners feel more writing flow. Activities could include students writing a short definition of a key concept, adding their opinion on a topic to a Mentimeter slide or speed-summarising what they learned in a tutorial. These mini writing activities can also feed forward into formal assessments and be a record of student work.
It’s a good idea to give students a choice in how they write but also encourage them to experiment; they might like to try different modalities typing on their phone, speech-to-text or writing by hand, for example.
Ask the right questions
Think about what you’re asking students to write (and why) to avoid boring, generic writing (or generative AI responses). You could try:
- Real-world or personal examples. Ask learners to find a real-world or personal example or application of a concept and then analyse that example using subject texts.
- Different perspectives. Get students to imagine they are writing as the CEO of a large company, or a volunteer in an NGO, or an alien reporting back to their home planet. If an issue has several possible viewpoints, ask students what their viewpoint on the topic is.
- Different types of writing. If the purpose for writing is anything other than to demonstrate an ability to write an essay or a report, can the type of writing be varied? Could students show they understand a concept by writing a letter in response to a customer complaint? Or a press release demonstrating the idea for the public? How about a screenplay in which the characters discover the concept for themselves? You could even allow students to choose the type of writing they want to do.
Support quiet voices to become louder
The quickest way to squash a learner’s voice is to focus on what’s wrong with their writing (“You used the wrong word here”; “You haven’t explained this concept well”). If a student receives negative (i.e. not constructive) feedback on their writing, they might respond by including even less of their own voice next time they write.
A good strategy is to focus on a learner’s ideas when giving feedback. Where have students included an interesting point? Where would you like them to explain more about what they mean? Where could they include an example from a real-world scenario?
Keen for more? Explore these LX.lab resources to look at student writing differently:
- Reflective writing as assessment
- Collaborative note-taking
- Collaborative and learner-centred group activities
Tried one of these or have your own strategies to help learners discover their written voice? Let us know in the comments!